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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Grass-Fed Cows' Milk Seen as Healthier
Studies compare the fat profile of milk from cows raised mostly on pasture, with milk from grain-fed cows 01/17/2011
A few years back we reported on a large British study that found organic milk higher in antioxidant compounds.
But does organic milk also provide a healthier “fat profile”?
Or, does a milk’s fat profile depend more on the kind of feed the cow gotregardless of whether it was grown organically or not?
When it comes to milk’s fat profile, feed type matters more than labels
A few studies have compared the fat profile of milk from cows raised mostly on pasture, with milk from cows raised mostly on grains.
For example, a Scottish investigation found milk from pasture-fed cows nutritionally superior… less saturated fat, more omega-3 fatty acids, and a higher (healthier) ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (Ellis KA et al. 2006).
Such studies also find higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)which is associated with better weight control and possible anti-cancer effectsin grass-fed cows’ milk.
Reinforcing the Scottish research, a new study from England found substantially (30-50 percent) less saturated fat and modestly higher levels of omega-3s and CLA in organic milk.
Most media outlets are presenting the study as a comparison between organic and conventional milk (Butler G et al. 2010).
While that characterization is technically accurate, the organic milk the British team analyzed came from cows raised more on grassy pasture than on grains, while the conventional milk came from cows fed more grain than pasture.
And its results echo those obtained by U.S. researchers in a study that compared the fat profiles of milk from cows raised on conventionally grown pasture alone, versus milk from cows fed mostly on conventionally grown grains (Schroeder GF et al. 2003).The available evidence indicates that milk from all grain-fed cows possesses a virtually identical fat profile (O'Donnell AM et al. 2010; O'Donnell-Megaro AM et al. 2011).
This holds true whether the animals were raised on organic grains, without livestock drugs, or conventionally (on regular grains, with antibiotics and rBST growth hormone).
Exception may prove the rule
One U.S. study actually found organic milk higher in saturated fats compared with conventional milk.
However, all of the milks sampled came from larger dairy farms, whichwhether they are organic or conventionaltend to feed cows more grain than pasture.
Overall, given its freedom from chemicals and environmentally superior production methods, organic milk seems clearly preferable to conventional.
But if the fat and antioxidant profile of milk is your main concern, choose moo juice from cows fed mostly on pasture, regardless of whether the milk is certified organic.
And if you find the arguments of raw milk fans persuasive, choose that over pasteurized milk… for more details, see “Raw Milk Fight Heats Up.”
  • Butler G, Stergiadis S, Seal C, Eyre M, Leifert C. Fat composition of organic and conventional retail milk in northeast England. J Dairy Sci. 2011 Jan;94(1):24-36.
  • Ellis KA, Innocent G, Grove-White D, Cripps P, McLean WG, Howard CV, Mihm M. Comparing the fatty acid composition of organic and conventional milk. J Dairy Sci. 2006 Jun;89(6):1938-50.
  • Larsen MK, Nielsen JH, Butler G, Leifert C, Slots T, Kristiansen GH, Gustafsson AH. Milk quality as affected by feeding regimens in a country with climatic variation. J Dairy Sci. 2010 Jul;93(7):2863-73.
  • O'Donnell AM, Spatny KP, Vicini JL, Bauman DE. Survey of the fatty acid composition of retail milk differing in label claims based on production management practices. J Dairy Sci. 2010 May;93(5):1918-25.
  • O'Donnell-Megaro AM, Barbano DM, Bauman DE. Survey of the fatty acid composition of retail milk in the United States including regional and seasonal variations. J Dairy Sci. 2011 Jan;94(1):59-65.
  • Schroeder GF, Delahoy JE, Vidaurreta I, Bargo F, Gagliostro GA, Muller LD. Milk fatty acid composition of cows fed a total mixed ration or pasture plus concentrates replacing corn with fat. J Dairy Sci. 2003 Oct;86(10):3237-48.